Ant Colonies: On Detecting Post Traumatic Death

The moment after I confronted the man who hurt me, I was free.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  I rode this high all the way to an amusement park the next day.  I rode roller coasters with friends, ate cotton candy, and skinned my knee from running too fast to get on the ride that scared me most… again.  I was fifteen and free.  I carried all of my ages, finally complete within me, silly and bleeding through my shredded pant leg.  I am 32 years old.  I am strong enough to carry all of me.

I rode this high all the way down the road to our next stops, retelling my story as I remembered it.  I wrote.  I marked time definitively.  I virtually high fived my friends.  I breathed easily.

And then, I fell asleep.  Typical teenager.  But I have to wake up.  I have to be diligent.  Or I could be carried off to the corpse yard.

It was our third day parked in the driveway of our North Carolina friends, and I was doing yoga in the driveway.  I had three large welts on my arm and leg from laying in savasana the day before.  These ants were biters, and seemed to wage an official war.  I took to sweeping the area before I practiced, but they occasionally wandered on my mat, anyway, and one in particular was swept with such force that it lay still, feet up, from the day before.  The other ants moved around it, occasionally stopping to inspect it, before moving on.  This sent me down an anthole of the internet.

The answer was less romantic than I’d hoped.  What I’d hoped was that these small creatures were mourning their dead.  What I hoped was that even the tiniest creature had a beating heart, and that beating heart couldn’t bear to part with their friend or co-worker or mother or supermarket cashier right away– that they were swiveling around the corpse carefully, nodding their heads and paying their respects until every member of the colony had the opportunity to view the beloved-now-gone member of the community.

I could already feel the easily-tied-up blog post forming.

The truth was, however, that they didn’t know she was dead, yet.  Likely, their pause in movement had more to do with dismay than distress.  “Come on, Janice! Quit being so damn lazy and get back to work!”

In fact, it would take another day– three days total– for the smell of oleic acid to finally be detectable.  This smell would then indicate that Janice was, in fact, not only lazy, but dead.  Once the smelly secretion confirmation comes in, they will finally gather, toss Janice on their backs, and throw her into the graveyard pile of other dead ants.

Three days before anyone even knew she was dead.

I suspect I am an ant colony.

After I confronted the man who hurt me and celebrated and, finally, fell asleep, it took me more than three days to realize I was dead.  It took a couple of weeks.  My laugh was slower.  My irritation was faster.  My Someone was at a loss.

I should be celebrating, I kept thinking. I was so brave. I was stronger than ever.

And then I felt ashamed.  I felt angry that I had done the thing that I was supposed to do in order to have the healing, and I was still so sad.  I was simultaneously lying on my back, riddled with death, while scurrying around asking myself to hustle–

Get up!  Get up!  What’s the matter with you?  There’s work to be done– we are free!

And still, the part of me that had been riding roller coasters was still.

The smell finally wafted into my nostrils when I called Bryan a couple weeks in.

“I knew it wasn’t going to fix everything,” I told him, trying to sound confident that this was all part of the plan. “I knew there would be a spiral down.  I guess I just have to sit in it for a while?”

Bryan agreed.  And then he confirmed the smell in the room.

“You’re mourning,” he said. “That girl who was abused for all those years– the one who was scared and fearful all the time, she’s gone.  And even though that’s not who you want to be, anymore, it doesn’t change that it was who you were.  Of course you are mourning that loss.”

Of course I was.  He was right.  I was dead.

Do you ever feel like you miss being in those moments of emotions from past bad relationships?  Like, I am happy and content and finally in a healthy relationship… but sometimes I hear a song and I remember sickly loving those moments of sadness and dread and not being understood even though I have someone now who understands me.

It was a welcome text my friend sent me.  She was talking to the right partially dead ant colony.  What I responded at the time was that– Yes!  Of course.  That desire to be destructive, to rip something apart for no reason, and to cry out into the boredom of the healthy– it is primitive and real and pressing.  But I am starting to wonder if that part of me is the part that I haven’t yet detected as dead.  If it still sits in me, unproductive and flatlined, but odorless.  And until the stench of it reaches my nose, I am unable to carry it off to the graveyard.  I am more likely to keep moving around it, wondering at its stillness.  Wondering what it’s still doing there.

Or, maybe the problem is that I carried it off to the graveyard too soon.

A final interesting fact straight from a horror movie is this: should you pour upon– or should an ant find itself smothered in– oleic acid while still living, the colony will carry its living thorax to the graveyard, anyway.  Never mind its kicking and screaming.  Never mind its clear indicators that it is, in fact, alive and productive.  The colony will simply hoist the little bugger up and toss it on the pile of corpses.  Dead to them.  Get out of here.  We don’t want you here, anymore.

This is where it gets tricky.

My deep sadness that believed it lost a part of herself, perhaps, was the beginning of an unlikely resurrection.  My entire body has since reacted.  Beyond the emotional despair, my physical body found itself in total disrepair, in spite of my consistent efforts to stay healthy.  My colony threw itself out.  The stench of death was too prominent to be wrong– out you go.  And because I had made such a healthy choice to be brave, to be present, to be eating greens, I mistrusted the judgment that I was no longer permitted to howl out as I tossed myself on a pile of dead.

I’ve learned to howl since then.

My friend Piper told me that humans, along with most creatures, have a primal desire to howl.  That they need to howl– in order to relieve stress and fear.  In order to remind themselves that they are still here and living and heard by another living creature.  Maybe it was true that part of me had died.  But there was plenty of me still left living.  And if any part of me was going to make it out again, I was going to have to cry out– to scream and be destructively loud– so that I might not be thrown out completely.

My Someone and I had started the ritual of howling just before we lost our dog in November– a call out to the Coyote Trickster of the Universe to let whatever happens happen, and to let it happen with a smirk and a trade.  We then howled our way through our grief when she passed.  We howled our way through the winter to remind ourselves that we were still a family.  And now, I am howling to keep death from doing me in, too.

What I would say to my friend, now, is what I am saying to myself– Howl your head off, creature.  Howl your head off so that you don’t get caught at the bottom of the heap.

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